|Redacted by Sabrina Dâscă|
|11 / 05 / 2021|
Ness has won numerous awards, among which the Children’s “Guardian” award, the “Trust Youth Trust Award” and the Children’s books Costa Award. He was born in Virginia and currently lives in London.
He had an open discussion with several youngsters, during the second edition of the book and film festival Festival YA, which takes place between May 10-16, being realized by Cărturești in partnership with Editura Trei. The festival is held online, bringing together young people and authors who discuss books and topics relevant to teenagers, including concerts (Lucia and the band Rockabella), as well as workshops for the interests and needs of young people. Among the participating authors confirmed this year are Alex Moldovan, Patrick Ness, Maureen Johnson, Jennifer Niven, David Levithan, Krystal Sutherland, Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Hafsah Faizal.
Most of your work consists of two stories that intertwine at the end. Do you usually start by thinking of them as separate or as a unit?
No, I consider the whole thing a single story with one or two parts. It is like a choir that sings: there are different sounds, several different shapes to be combined and all I have to do is harmonize them together.
Your writing style is rather distinct, how did you come to develop it?
I don’t actually think I have a writing style. Each book has a distinct tone, yes, but it is chosen depending on its subject. It’s like a song – a song is a performance. I don’t consciously think “I will write this a certain way”, it just comes out of my voice, being affected by the story that has to be told. I have a way of thinking about the world, as everyone present here does, which is unique. I guess I will become my voice and my style, no matter what it is, but I can’t say what it is for now.
You co-wrote the script to Chaos Walking. How was it to adapt the book for cinema? What about writing the script?
When I started the script, I knew that whatever I do the book remains. The movie will not erase the book. The book is and will always be mine. If I can embrace that then I can also get a good movie out. A film is like a short story – I tried to keep the essential, the things in the book that are really important. I went by the premise that if I can keep the spirit of the book, if I can do that, then that’s enough. It’s a creative challenge to recreate the same story in a different medium, it’s like a remix of the book in a way.
Have you ever imagined yourself in a world where everyone can hear everyone else’s thoughts?
When I wrote Chaos Walking we technically were living like that, being in constant tune with each other, which we still do, but on an even bigger scale. Even way back then it felt really loud to be able to hear what everyone else was saying. I think we have to hear a lot, constantly, to see the bad parts of social media where lies and half-truths run rampant and we start to be really afraid of it. I wish it were a little quiet and less noisy.
What was the hardest part of writing Chaos Walking?
It was getting Todd’s voice right. Up until that point I always wrote in first person. It’s fun but really hard, especially the first draft for me. I like to go back to it and edit and re-edit, but getting the first draft has always been a tough task.
A Monster Calls began from Siobhan Dowd’s unwritten pitch. What were the changes made to the initial idea that made A monster calls yours?
Siobhan got breast cancer before she finished A Monster Calls, she had about 1000 words, a few characters, a setting, the barebones and the idea that there were going to be other stories connected to it. At first I thought no, I can’t do this, but then I got an idea from her writing. There is this scene in monster calls that reinforced the idea that this book doesn’t have to be just a memoir. I hope the experience never repeats but the idea was so small, but so potent that it went places. Technically I invented several characters, made some changes but it remained the same at its base. All in all, it was a really wonderful experience.
How does it happen that a character isn’t doing the right thing, it still manages to make the reader fond of them?
For me it’s always having to ask the question “how would they really react?” Not “how would these YA characters react?” I want to shape my characters depending on who they are, to respect them and their choices, let them be independent from the plot and sometimes they end up doing things that surprise me. Like the way Todd in Chaos Walking has to kill because he is taught “that is what men do”. So I asked myself “how would a real person react to that?” Violence is too easy of an answer. There is one scene where he has a knife but he doesn’t use it, even though he knows he should and another where he has a knife and uses it, even though he knows he shouldn’t have and that to me, in its contradiction, is humanity at its best and this humanity, this relatability is what draws readers to characters.
How much worldbuilding do you usually do before starting a novel?
Before the book I’m just thinking and asking myself a lot of questions: “in a world where everyone can hear your thoughts… how do you lie? How do you keep a secret?”. In Chaos Walking, women’s thoughts are not on display but men’s are, then the question was: “how do they live harmoniously, if they do?” . I never want to just sit down and say to the reader “this is like this” and “this is like that.” For example, in Chaos Walking, Todd already expects that you know the history of this world. Your readers are smart and you shouldn’t treat them as if they are not. I usually try to just sit down and write as little worldbuilding as possible to do just that.
How did you come up with the concept of More than This?
It came about the idea that you someday wake up and everyone is gone, which I always wanted to write. I found it to be a good metaphor for being young. You leave everything behind you, your family, your parents and it literally feels as if you are the only one left and completely isolated. I found that metaphor lovely. As a gay teenager, like I was, the isolation only intensifies and I tried to incorporate that feeling in all of it. The very last line in the book is that he says “I’m ready.” That’s the whole book. He’s ready for what is next, for life. There is this idea that there is more to life than we might think at first and I needed to know and hear that then and I feel like I still need it sometimes even now.
What is your favourite Taylor Swift album?
It is probably 1984. I feel like it is somewhere between the country and hip hop genre. There is one song on it called Out of the Woods. It is done in such a masterful way that there is no way to breathe during that song. You cannot sing it or you will die and I think that Taylor Swift is trying to kill us here!
What is one of the things that you look for when trying to find a book to read?
I want something that is a little strange, a little different. I like SF plots. I don’t hugely like SF writing. I kind of sometimes feel like in SF the idea is more important than the storytelling. I’m always looking for something that is just a little bit different.
What is your favourite character from Chaos Walking?
It is Wilf, a character that came out of nowhere, just the first day that I wrote him. It was wonderful to just sit down and have this lovable human come out of the page!
What is your inspiration?
Girl, if I knew i’d have written a hundred novels by now! Sometimes it’s something funny, sometimes it’s a single image that makes me question what its story is. At some point I used Lordi, from Finland, who won Eurovision, as an inspiration for a short story based on the idea of demons.
How do you get past the fear of initial failure?
Just accept that your first draft will look like a little chubby donkey sitting on a beach. I just think that “it’s okay, nobody needs to see this,” so when the second draft comes around all I have to do is write like I knew what I was doing all along. Just go for it. Nobody needs to see it until you show it to them.
If you could go on an adventure in a book written by you, where would it be?
I mean… have you read my books? I think nobody wants to live there, it’s terrible! The world of books is infinite, and there are so many that I would love to visit, like a world where Matt Damon was in love with me.
Definitely none of my books though. Even if my books are sad and desperate in themes, I still find joy in the project and they give me joy.
How did the idea of the Crane Wife come to be?
There is a Japanese folk tale about a crane that comes with an arrow stuck in its wings, which is found by a man. He then meets this woman, this weaver, whom he marries and shortly after he becomes rich. She tells him “you can never watch me leave”. Once he got rich his greed grew and grew until one day when, because of his greed, he sees that his wife was the crane all along, under a spell that made her human for so long. She then turns back to her crane form and leaves.
This story is very dear to me. I lived in Hawaii and my teacher then, she was Japanese, told us about this story. I like that this story started with me when I was a child and it stuck around until I was an adult, so I thought to integrate this folk tale in modern life. I didn’t expect for it to go places like it did. It felt sweet, in a tender loving way. I’m really proud of it and I love it! I love everybody in that book and I want them to be fine.
Were any of your characters inspired by people in your life (accidentally or intentionally) ?
It’s always little bits and pieces here and there. Like in Chaos Walking, they find Hildi, the mayor of the other town, and she has this authority about her.
My family comes from Norway and my aunt, who emigrated from Norway to the States, is essentially her. I love her so much, she’s such a great person. I don’t want her to be the exact same but I tried to make you love Nildi as much as I love my aunt.
There is a DC character called Zatanna who has magical characters, pretty obscure. She finds that she has telekinesis and she’s on a public transportation train, next to a guy who mansplains and with her powers she just shuts his legs together, so it’s little things like that, that annoy me, that I grow fond of, that stick around in the story.
What’s something you wish you knew when you started writing, that you know now?
I’m glad that I didn’t know things. Like when writing the Chaos Walking trilogy, I didn’t know how difficult it was and I don’t think I would have taken it up if I’d known how difficult it was at first. I wish P knew how difficult it can be to finish a book. Those first 2 or 3 or 4 times you feel like hey how could anyone else get through this? The words that it will get better as I progress are perhaps the only thing I wish I’d known.
Do you come up with the ending before writing the first draft or do you make it up as you go?
I knew the last line, because I feel like it is the most important piece of a book. If you have read chaos walking and you got to book 3 and asked yourself what this is? Well there are 3 short stories that I have written that take place after each book.
When you find an idea do you ever fear that it was used before?
I think that each idea was at some point used, but yours will be special to you. How many vampire books are there? So many and so many are terrible, but not all. There are good ones and bad ones, like Twilight. Obviously I won’t copy the plot of another book, but I think that if you were to do a plot you would make it yours. I always wait with an idea. One idea is just not enough for a book. Does this idea inspire new ideas? When you end the book it will be such a combination of ideas that in the end it will be entirely new.
Real writers don’t write for others. They write anyway. If you are worried that others have written this idea, write it anyway, no matter what those ideas are. Real writers write in spite. To me, the main motivation is someone telling me that I can’t do that.
Have you ever thought about writing a book from the perspective of the indie kids in The Rest Of Us Just Live Here?
I love the indie kids, and I think that they have a really hard time as the chosen ones. I like that this time their story is set in the back and someone else takes the stage this time.
You mentioned in the beginning that a book is like a song. Do you write listening to music? If so, what music inspired or accompanied your books?
I don’t listen to music while I write, but many of my books have a song that I associate them with. Each of them makes me feel in a way that I hope I can make you feel when you read it. For a life of never letting go for example there is this band called Muse that has this ridiculous song titled for the part of the problematic which goes fast but in the second part it gets even faster and that motion is how I wanted to pace my book.
Which of your books do you think teenage you would love most?
One of the main reasons why I wanted to write is because I never saw myself in what I read as a kid. The book I think he would have liked most is the book Release. It’s about love and finding the right person, as well as not being ashamed of who you love, which for a gay teen would definitely have been very nice to have.
What story did you love as a child?
Oddly, I didn’t like Narnia, but as a kid I liked Little house in the Prairie, and Stephen King since he’s been so important to so many teens. My favourite book of his is Pet Cemetery, which I used to think was his nastiest and scariest of works.